Introduction: Van De Graaff Electrostatic High Voltage Generator

Picture of Van De Graaff Electrostatic High Voltage Generator

Step 1: The Parts for the VDG

Picture of The Parts for the VDG

The only parts in this that you are not likely to find at your local hardware store are the wheels.   I used bed frame wheels. their choice sorta dictated the size of Van De Graaff (Henceforth called VDG for short.)  More about the wheels later.

These are the parts used.
1 Lightbulb socket (I pried out the bottom most contact, to give less surface area to bleed off static charges.
1 Large globe lightbulb
1 1.50"" to 2" pvc adapter (lightbulb socket fits in here nicely, and gives space to mount the brushes)
1 2" to 3" pvc adapter
1 3" to 3" PVC Coupler
1 5" threaded rod and assorted washers and nuts,  I think it was 5/32"
1 6" threaded bolt, and washers, small enough for the wheel to glide on)
2 slightly curved plastic bedframe rollers. (was going to use skateboard wheels sanded down on my drillpress, but my dad had these in his shop)
1 3"x3"x1.50" PVC Tee
1 length of pvc (Ihad to use ABS which is not as good due to its carbon content, but it was all I could find in precut lengths, and didnt want to buy 9 more feet of pipe.
1 1.50" to 0.25" pvc adapter
2 sets of skateboard wheel bearings,
Some copper wire both to make a ground wire, and a spark wand wire, but also to make the brushes.
1 outlet plug (this is only connected to the ground pin
1 can of cold galvanizing spraypaint
1 can of copper metallic spraypaint
1 drill socket adapter. (to turn the bottom wheel)
1 drill, (optional speed controller)
1 sheet of latex exercise banding
1 tube of bike tire patch glue.
Teflon pipe tape,
copper foil tape
Other misc Stuff, A board to screw it down to and some long screws. and A binding post for the charge wand, some wire, a old junk drawer nob pull for the wand, some plastic tubing for the shaft of the wand.

Step 2: The Globe

Picture of The Globe

From that other VDG instructable I mentioned in the first page, i got the idea to use a lightbulb,  but i knew the foil covering they used was inefficient, (too many bumps and corners)

I went with a large 8" decorative bulb.    And then I set about trying  make the glass (an insulator) conductive on the surface.  This involved trying to find out what spray paint was static conductive.

Sadly most is not!  after trying various paints on glass jars, i finally settled on a very high zinc content "Cold Galvanizing" Spray, from Rustoleum  this makes for a nicely conductive but ugly. globe

In my experiments Rustolium decoratives Metallic Copper spray was also fairly conductive. so i sprayed a topcote with that to make it more touchable and pretty.  (tested with and without both worked pretty well.

*I tried also making a rig to electro plate copper onto the zinc, and while i had soem success, the chemicals involved in the paint kept corrupting my plating solution,  im going to try again with conductive plating paint. someday! And probably do a new instructable about making copper spheres out of lightbulbs.

Step 3: Upper Wheel

Picture of Upper Wheel

As indicated in the graphics on the parts page, 

Saw two notches in the 3" down to the center line on the PVC Coupler,  verify your threaded rod can fit down in it nice and level. 

Assemble one of the wheels  onto the 6"bolt , and put washers and nuts on both sides.  slide it down into the notches. and finger tighten the nuts on the outside of the fitting.  (you will need to slide this out of the notches when putting the belt on. 

Using a few drops of superglue, glue some pvc Teflon tape to the upper wheel and cover it in about 2 layers of Teflon, superglue down the remaining tail

also go ahead and assemble the other parts,  the lightbulb socket, and the 1.50" adapter and the 2-3" adapter,  install loops of bare stranded copper wire around the single screw left in the light socket,  once affixed, snip open the loops to make lots of copper brush bristles,   bend/shape them to just glide over the wheel/belt to pickup the static charge and transfer it to the socket/and eventually to the lightbulb/globe

Step 4: Lower Wheel Assembly.

Picture of Lower Wheel Assembly.

For the lower shaft,  its only supported on one side, (to aid with installing the belt later)

You need to press the skate barrings into the 1/2" to 1" adapter this will serve as support for the bottom wheel., i used some wood and my vice to squeeze them in, one after the other.

You also need to figure out where you want the wheel to ride in the PVC Tee adapter  best is about center,  mark the threaded rod and place your wheel where it needs to go, (you need about 1" or more rod to stick out through the bearings to power it with.

Now tighten on lock washers and nuts on either side of the wheel sandwiching it and making it turn when the threaded rod is turned

wrap the lower wheel in copper foil tape and insert into tee and out through the fitting with the bearings.  snap it into place.

Now make and install your brushes,  We made some loops of stripped stranded wire, and wrapped them around a screw and put them into the bottom of the tee fitting and snipped the loops to make lots of little broom bristle like brush points just grazing the side of the bottom wheel

Step 5: Starting the Assembly.

Picture of Starting the Assembly.

Step 6: Continued Assembly

Picture of Continued Assembly

For stability and ease of use,  I screwed it down to a square chunk of plywood.  just drilled some holes in the lip of the OVC tee, and installed long screws into the wood.

At this time we also drilled a hole for a ground wire to go tho the brushes, and also to the charge wand.  Both were run to a binding post we mounted on the board.

At this point you are about all ready to go,  you are going to need atleast one other person for the next step.

Step 7: Assembly

Picture of Assembly

Prepare by removing the top roller by just sliding the axle up the sawed out notches. and set it aside,

you will also need a long semi rigid wire to fish the belt up the tube with,  (a untwisted metal coat hanger would work well, I used some stiff copper wire. 

make a hook out of your coathanger,

Put the top coupler on the top of the pipe,  and insert the coathanger  hook down the pipe.

place the belt (still using gloves) around the lower wheel, now hook the belt with the coathanger hook, and while standing up the PVC pipe, keep tension,  upping the belt up through the top fitting,  look down to make sure there is no twist or roll in the band.  Have your friend hold the coathanger up while you thread the upper wheel/axle through the band and let it carefully down into the notches.  when done it should look like a big conveyor belt.  tighten the upper bolts and give the lower shaft a quick spin with your fingers.

The curved (domed) shape of the wheels should keep the belt centered. but you might have to pre-center it a little bit.   make sure it does not keep wandering too far to one side or the other. this may indicate your shafts are not parallel and you will have to shim or fix, that.

Step 8: Done!

Picture of Done!

Lots of folks played with it during our big February event at our Hackerspace Quelab.  

If you are ever in Albuquerque!  Look us up!

Thanks and Enjoy!


ProphetofSword (author)2014-08-11

do you happen to remember what kind of voltage output you got from this design?

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-26

1.How do you make a discharge wand nobody online has a guide on how to make one.
2. I fired up my generator and it worked fine when it didn't go to ground, but when I finally got my ground(the plug in I wasn't getting anything, why is that?

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-22

Killbox another question please: My output sphere is 2 salad bowls taped together it stands at about 11 1/2" tall and 9" width in the middle. Also it is an oval shape. Will this still work? And what can I do about the numbers on the bowl?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-22

sure, the best collector would be a sphere, but you dont need the best possible, should be fine. as for the lumbers, im assuming those are measures? probably dont need to do anything, but if you really want some time with sandpaper or a dremmel with a grinder attachment could probably remove it, but it will probably always show.

newnarutofan (author)killbox2013-03-22

thanks hopefully, I will restart construction this weekend. I hope it will work . This project will de termine if I pass or fail the class.

newnarutofan (author)killbox2013-03-22

thanks hopefully, I will restart construction this weekend. I hope it will work . This project will de termine if I pass or fail the class.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-22

kill box: 1.does it matter which one of the rollers is on top (like if the copper was on top and the teflon was on bottom)
2. I saw that on my steel bowls there are measuring numbers theres only 3 and I think they are only 1/4" big. Will they effect my charge output. If so how can I fix that (the numbers are dented on the inside and kind of pop out on the oustide if that makes sense)

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-22

1: yes! i think thats the one thing that would matter the most, you want the copper one at the bottom feeding it electrons, and the teflon one above breaking them free and transferring them to the collector.
2: bigger would be better, but mine using the lightbulb was not very huge and it worked. may limit your maximum spark

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-21

killbox I have a few concerns:
1. I was thinking about putting nuts on the outside of my top roller to keep it stable. Will this effect the ability to discharge when I have my roller and wire on the inside of the sphere?
2. I also need some tips on creating something my sphere can sit on as support big does the hole in the sphere have to be?
4. I got some dust on my copper roller. What is a good way to get it clean?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-21

1: if you can use nylon nuts or small sections of tubing i think that would be best, that way charge wont want to leave the top wheel that way. although if it did i dont think its the end of the world, as the static builds on the axle it will eventually saturate
2: not sure, but if you make your hole in the sphere big enough to just barely go over your pipe at the top (i think you said you were not using a coupler on the top) you could go down atleast to the axle bolt. if you make it tight no mounting would be needed, if its a little loose a few wraps of electrical tape on the pipe would fatten it up.
3: i think i answered that above, alot of the professional vandegraffs just put the support tube up into the sphere.
4:Dunno, maybe a can of compressed air duster? probably wont hurt anything.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-20

Oh ok killbox. Heres what I am thinking about doing:
I bring the wire from a hole in the tee a bit a above the bottom roller. I then pull the wire downwards, then I bend the wire a bit upwards then make an "L" shape at the bottom of the roller where the tips of the of the brush are a bit below the bottom. Will this also work?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-20

yes, i think so! its just a electron source so pretty much anything that can supply the belt with electrons, should work.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-20

So killbox to get this straight... from the hole on the bottom tee you brought the wire straight down from the hole, then you extended the wire down a bit past the roller , then you bent your bottom brush tips was they were pointing up toward the bottom roller not running parallel (that’s flat) with the bottom roller.
1. DO I HAVE IT RIGHT? 2. Did you do the same thing with the top roller?
3. Also if my wire extends more than ½” will it still work?
4. And how did get your wire to stay put? every time I move just a little bit, the brushes move!
5. I have seen people put there roller and brushes inside of the sphere. I don’t. I thought I would have my roller on the PVC, and brush wire attched to the coupling above the roller, then I have the sphere on the coupling. will it still be work?
6. On a final note would it help if I send you pictures? If so how do I go about doing that?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-20

Sadly i cant provide pictures, since i have already sold this build at one of our yardsales but i did draw a very crude drawing, (warning im pretty bad with drawing in gimp, and this was a very rush job!) added it to the pictures in the step about the copper wrapped wheel.

#3, sure, you only want it to lightly sweep the belt, but really it can be whatever length will work for you,
#4 maybe you need a little stiffer of wire? not sure without photos of your brushes what may be going on, but once i got mine in place and fanned out and trimmed flat they were really no trouble.
#5 yes the roller and the brushes inside would work a little better, less loss less bleedoff and such, but i was surprised to see how well it could work. using the socket and lightbulb (which would be impossible)

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-19

killbox I have a couple more questions about the brushes
1. When I do my bottom brush I drilled a hole a bit above the roller, had it coming straight down on the inside of the pipe, holding it together with a plastic loop, when I get to where I want the brush I bend the wire up and snake it to the roller. Will this still work?
2. I got it when you said the brushes go with the direction of the roller when it’s rolling, but I am a bit confused about the tips of the brushes. Do they go along the wheel (basically flat) where the tips are a bit after the wheel, or are they before the roller, or in the middle of the roller? Or do they point upward towards the roller?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-19

mine poked into the side kinda even with the roller, but there is like a 1/2" clearence there so then they were bent upward in about a 45 degree angle to just barely have the tips touching the belt probably 1/2" above the roller, on the side where the belt would be going in an upward dirrection.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-13

Oh I forgot to add one more thing, my pipe in 16in long (giggity, giggity, goo) and i am cutting(2) 2 1/2 in slits for the top roller. is this to tall?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-13

I dont know if there is much of a maximum/minimum distance. My gut instinct is it will scale fine. ive seen 1' tall ones and 4' tall ones. although the on in the instructable was my first and sofar only one ive made.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-13

Thank killbox.
1. I have heard people wrap electrical tape around there rollers to make a barrel shape then they put a thin layer of their copper or Teflon around it. Does this actually work?
2. And was thinking about putting the screw below the roller, wrapping it up and try and get the brushes to glide on would this also work?
3. I put my dome together by bonding the lids with epoxy and wrapped 4 layers of electrical tape on the outside, the rims are still on the bowls. Will this work?
4. And I put 1 layer of electrical tape on the bottom where I cut a hole to reduce the corona charge (I think it’s called this). Do I need more layers?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-13

1, I dont know, mine were already barrell shaped, i cant see why it would not work.
2, i think as long as your pretty much on or near the roller you will be fine.
3, the lips of the bowls may cause some discharge but no i suspect you will be fine.
5, static is a bit of a different creature than most electricity we are useto. a single layer of electrical tape can stop sparks from flying in the 1-800v range, but as voltage goes up it does need to be thicker, i can only say try it out, and then maybe try it with more to see if you see any difference. it will probably be fine.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-12

I have another few questions (2 about the bottom roller, and 1 about the top roller)
1. Where does the screw go on the tee?
2. How did you get your bottom roller to get straight and perfectly centered? When I tried to do it the belt pulled up on the roller. I also tried to get a piece of thread rod to go all the way to the other side on the bottom roller. Do you have any ideas on how to get it straight?
3. How did you get your notches so square and centered and leveled on the coupling? I am using the coupling for something else. I tried to get the notches on the PVC but it didn’t work out hints?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-12

1, it was on the side of the wheel just a bit above it. in the photo of the tee with the wheel with copper tape, you can see i drilled the hole for the wire, as i recall the wire poked in went around a screw then with the brush facing kinda upwards along the side of the belt.

2, im guessing i was lucky when i pressed in the bearings, and put the fitting in everything was tight and level and my threaded rod i had already tested to see if it was straight by rolling it across a desk. im thinking if the fittings are loose at all (like the plug with the bearings in it, you might be able to use a some tape or some paper to make it fit more snugly.
3, i just handsawed them down, to a measured mark, and then broke them out. i thought they were level, but in the end i had to stick a teeny shim in the bottom of one to keep my belt centered

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-11

Killbox I finally have my belt on.
1. the top part of it is centered but the bottom part keep moving toward the right edge but it still is on the roller but barely, will this still work or does it need to be perfectly centered?.
2. I have also heard that the rollers material does not have to be thick. Some people said only a thin outer jacket of the copper and Teflon and have a thick layer of electrical tape underneath of that makes the bumps. Will this still work?
3. Where did you get the copper tape and what is the brand name?
4. And I noticed that copper is rubbing from the lower wheel to the belt is showing up on the belt. Will this short is out? If so how do I if it?
5. And I am still having trouble with the bottom wires. I can’t seem to get them to the right width with out them getting sucked in.

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-11

1, 5, sounds like your bottom roller may not be staying level. not sure what to say about that. perhaps wedging some thing like paper in the fitting might keep it tight and straight. your belt may be a little short and cauing too much tension,

2, i don't think it needs to be thick, not sure about the rubbing off, hopefuly not enough to become conductive along much of the belt, mine didnt rub off that i ever noticed.

killbox (author)killbox2013-03-11

oops, hit enter too soon.

3, copper tape i had for a long time, i think it came from an electronics supply shop(used for rf shielding and grounding), may also be able to get it from art supply places. (its used in stainglass work)

5, not sure what you mean by sucked in, they should brush along the belt, the same direction as the belt goes, so if they are getting moved you might be going against the belt direction?

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-10

thaks again killbox. I have another question. The brushes, do they kind brush over the wheel glideing over the wheel or are the to the side completeley. I have also twisted the wire going to the sphere one wire and duct taped it so the bare cooper is touching the sphere. Will this still give me the zap I need?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-10

I dont know if it really matters, as long as they are near the wheels, mine were right on them, probably best since along the belt it can wiggle more and not scrape the electrons as well.

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-10

should be just fine,

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-10

Which do the brushes face. and is it ok for the tip of the bristles go over the center of the whell?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-10

the brushes should go the same direction you choose to make the belt go (when you decide which way the drill makes the belt go) mark the direction somewhere. so if the belt is going around clockwise, you want the bottom brush to be following along on the belt on the bottom pointing left and the top pointing down to the right. or the opposite if you have it going counter clockwise, you can imagine if you got it wrong the belt will grab and bend your brushes, otherwise they will just kinda gently sweep on or off the electrons from the belt.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-09

hey kill box my belt keeps slipping off. I know its not the bed rollers. please help

I think I my have solved the problem. I just put more tephlon tape in the middle of the top roller and let the bottom one be is this ok?

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-09

thanks killbox I have finally started consturction and the hardest part for me is the belt I am using a medium (blue color) yoga exercise band. I have also made my brushes they do not all the way across but I thinks I will still work? And I have another question 1. For my top brush have twisted 3 wires together and fanned them out and for the sphere I have twisted them and mage them 1 wire as it were, will this still work?

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-09

How can you be sure the brushes are touching?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-09

the top one is pretty easy, just make sure its lined up with the wheel and angled so its rubbing. for the bottom one its a little more tricky especially once the band is on, but i found with a flashlight i could look down and see it. i had it coming in touching the side of the bottom wheel, id say make your brushes a little extra long to be sure.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-04

the links that you gave me are either dead or i can't access them

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-09

odd i can still pull up both photo links they are jsut images off of google image search. try cutting and pasting them into the address bar of a new browser window/tab

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-04

Dude killbox you are like a godsend to me. I have one more question I swear. If i did get a drill with a cord on it how do you construct the inductive dimmer box (i think I am saying it right), I have no idea. Please tell me in stupid steps (thats the only mode I work in)

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-04

Really no big deal, keep asking questiions you need to ask. Im good with them, its one of the reasons i helped startup a Hackerspace here.

As for the dimmer box, im going to give you this image i just found off of google, just imagine that you put the 2 wires going to the light bulb to an outlet, i would also run a line up to the ground. here is a diagram for a dimmer, and followed by a diagram for an outlet,


I would suggest a cheap rotory dimmer switch, and there is no need for a FGCI type outlet pictured in the diagram, just cheap hardware store dimmer and outlet., mounted up in a double gang outlet box also available from the hardware store.

And for a cord, i just used a spare computer power cord, with the computer end cut off.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-04

Thanks killbox by the way I have few more questions.
1.Is it ok to hold the wire going to the globe (i am using 2 salad bowls epoxed together with duct tape on bottom hole and to help hold the 2 bowls together) with duct tape on the inside, and when they say connect to the spere does that mean the entire wire is bare or just the top and is it frayed, also is does it matter how high you put the wire.
2. I am have a hard time getting the belt to stay in place any suggestions?
3. Also is the wire to bottom rollor, the wand, and the plug to ground interconnected (on the same screw)?
4. And finally is using a single piece of stranded wire ok for the top and bottom brush ok. And if not, I am having a hard time make the brushes with three any suggestions?

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-04

1, sure thing, you want the best connection between the top brush, and the bowls you can, so you might use as fat of stranded wire as you can, or even 2 or 3 wires. Tape should be fine, just be sure you are making good contact with the wire ends and the bowls

2, make sure your wheels are not perfect cylinders you want them to be a little bit barrel/egg shaped,(if they are not really smaller on the sides and bigger in the middle, you could clamp the wheel in a drill and sand the sides a bit. contrary to what one would think kinda egg shaped wheels help (_)======belt===(_) here my diagram is kinda sideways but if as you can see the band is going around the kinda sloped wheels, if it slips to the sides the wheel is a little smaller there which makes it want to go faster which pushes it back to the middle. this is only true if the wheels are totally parallel, I found the notches i used at the top had my top wheel just a teeny bit higher on one side, so i fixed that by putting a coffee stir-er under the bolt on the low side before tightening the nut/washer. if it keeps slipping off a side, raise up the other side by a few MM.

3, yep, they all are tied together,

4, you want as many "brushes" as you can get across the width of your belt, so either use bigger gage wire or several of them, feel free to mount it up with your brushes long, you can then fan it out and use scissors to give the brushes a flat haircut making a good brush for rubbing the belt.

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-04

P.S. One more thing I am using a battery operated drill is that still ok? and how did you make the wand nodody has any instrutions on how to make one.

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-04

Actually durinig a few demos of the project i did use a battery operated drill, it works just fine. (there is a teeny chance you might get a static zap if you are pulling the drill trigger and shocked. this might kill the speed control in some cheap drills. (never have done this but it might be possible)

As for the wand, it really is just a knob, (found the roundest metal one i could at a hardware store. i attached the ground wire to the screw, and then put a plastic tube for the handle (i think i used the plastic tubes used as the post/stake on those cheap solar garden lights.)

newnarutofan (author)2013-03-03

I am confused about the grounding part. Can somebody please explain to me how and why he did it. Also would a regular screw wrok instead of a binding post

killbox (author)newnarutofan2013-03-03

the grounding is important as eventually you will pretty much use up the available supply of free electrons, it works ok with no ground, and if i was using a grounded drill it would probably have worked. if i was sure to connect the shaft to ground. the wand is not necessary either, but you get to show the bigger sparks, discharging the globe to ground. no you dont need a binding post, a screw would be fine, having one just made it more configurable.

and sure, you dont need a binding post, just gave some more options

newnarutofan (author)2013-02-09

Will the generator still work without the wand and the plug?

scienceday (author)2013-02-02

how many volts does it have?

jbussé (author)2011-08-25

I thought you needed the grounding. doesn't you electrons come from the ground??

killbox (author)jbussé2011-08-25

It was grounded via a wire and a outlet plug (only using the ground pin) it helped, but still got a spark not using it.

rrousseau (author)2011-06-27

how much would all this cost and how tall and wide is it?

About This Instructable




Bio: Im a bit of a geek of all trades. Of late most of my free energy has going into Making sure our hacker/makerspace is ... More »
More by killbox:Recycled Pill Bottle Screw Catcher. X-top-capKeychain folding lockpick (now updated with tension wrench) Universal kitchen pan lids.  (quick lifehack)
Add instructable to: